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Sun News Network's vulgar response reveals CBSC as toothless, demonstrates need for meaningful regulation

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Sun News Network's Ezra Levant (Screen Capture)

Radio and television network owners join groups like the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council to inoculate themselves against the possibility of actual regulation being enforced in the interests of Canadians, who own the airwaves from which these companies generate such handsome profits.

So the response by Sun News Network and its on-air commentator Ezra Levant to a ruling of the CBSC on June 13 censuring them for using on the air a Spanish profanity universally understood to mean "f**k your mother," and for clearly identifying the individual at whom he directed this and other insults, is illuminating.

It is said here that Levant's disrespectful response to the CBSC ruling, which was broadcast by Sun News Network the same day and which gleefully repeated the offensive phrase, clearly illustrates the confidence Canadian businesses generally have in their freedom from any regulation or enforcement by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa.

Moreover, it is said here that the Sun TV commentator's vulgar response -- which it is difficult to conclude did not have the full support and approval of the Sun News Network -- indicates the absolute freedom this right-wing broadcasting network enjoys from the rules that apply to others, and indeed from normal standards of discourse and decency, as a result of its close connection with and support for Prime Minister Harper and his government.

It is a short and clear line, after all, that connects Harper to Sun News Network and its potty-mouthed commentator, who is well known for over-the-top commentary and grandstanding on the air and in print.

Kory Teneycke, once Harper's spokesperson, later became "the point man for Quebecor's Pierre Karl Péladeau in his effort to create a right-wing television network modelled along the lines of Fox News," the Globe and Mail's Lawrence Martin wrote in 2010. Today, of course, Quebecor is the parent company of both Sun News Network and the Sun Media national newspaper chain.

"The new network is a high priority for Harper, for whom controlling the message has always been -- witness his government vetting program -- of paramount importance," Martin explained.

As for Levant, he is well known as a supporter of Harper's Conservative Party. In 2002, he gave up the predecessor Canadian Alliance party’s nomination in the Calgary Southwest riding so that our esteemed prime minister could have a comfortable political home.

The June 13 ruling published by the CBSC's four-member panel found the obscenity spoken on-air by Levant was a violation of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters' Code of Ethics. Accordingly, under the rules it had agreed to as part of the voluntary organization, Sun News Network was required to read a statement on the air, twice, acknowledging that it had broken the organization's rules.

Now, this may not seem like much of a punishment for Levant's offensive commentary, but that after all is the point of organizations like the CBSC -- to shield their members from the threat of meaningful enforcement of even minimum standards.

Nonetheless, this was apparently too much for Prime Minister Harper’s favourite network -- whose commentator's re-use of obscenity and open contempt for this industry self-regulation group was favourably touted in print and on-line stories by Sun Media's newspaper division, complete with links to a recording of the broadcast.

This blog came in for particular vituperation on Levant's program because it was acknowledged in this space that your blogger filed one of the 22 complaints received by the CBSC. This in turn was followed by a flurry of insults on various social media by some of Levant's on-line supporters.

The substance of Levant's broadside seemed in part to be that by accepting the CBSC’s invitation to make an on-line complaint about on-air behaviour and language I believed was inappropriate, I was a snitch and was attempting to "censor" Levant's opinions, which no matter how ridiculous he has a right to express.

In addition -- in a kind of backhanded compliment to the influence of this tiny, imperfect blog -- Levant is accusing your 60-year-old blogger of being a bully. Readers are reminded that the person making this assertion is a political associate of our prime minister, well connected to the governing party and the star of a national TV program on which he is apparently able to toss insults and obscenities at people with whom he takes issue without restraint.

It should also be noted here that the complaint process used by the CBSC, as one might expect from an organization run voluntarily by broadcasters themselves, seems designed to discourage complaints. Certainly my first communications were deflected because they made reference to an on-line video, not an actual over-the-airwaves broadcast. I was subsequently asked if I was sure I wanted to make a formal complaint, and given every opportunity not to do so.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, by the way, the federal agency that should deal with complaints and enforcement of this type, will not do so, referring complaints instead to the CBSC.

While I have formally complained again to the CBSC about Levant's June 13 commentary and I am sure other Canadians will do so too, it is abundantly clear the organization is toothless and its sanctions meaningless -- even if, as is clearly not the case with the well-connected Sun News Network, its member broadcasters make an effort to play along.

Which brings us to the point of this post. If we are going to have civil standards of discourse on the airwaves that are owned by all Canadians, those airwaves need to be properly regulated by the government of Canada and not by a powerless self-regulating entity, no matter how well intentioned it may be.

This is obviously not a call or censorship, but merely for the enforcement of minimal standards of civility on a publicly owned resource.

Of course there is no hope of even marginal standards of civility being encouraged let alone enforced under a Harper Government, which encourages the decline of public discourse in order to turn young people, seniors and others who might not support its neo-conservative ideology off of voting altogether. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney's just revealed "complete and utter" A-bomb, illuminates this tendency quite nicely.

Canadians who believe the F-Word and its foreign equivalents do not belong on the air during the afternoon and early evening, or who simply think that the same rules ought to apply to everyone in a democratic society, need to keep this in mind the next time they are asked to choose a federal government.

Acting on that understanding in the polling booth and in Parliament would be a better response to Sun News Network's ugly on-air excesses than leaving it to a toothless industry self-regulator and hoping for the best, or, worse yet, adopting Levant's repellent language and conduct in response.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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